Autonomy, Omniscience and the Ethical Imagination: From Theoretical to Practical Philosophy in Kant

  • Carl J. Posy
Part of the International Archives of the History of Ideas / Archives Internationales d’Histoire des Idées book series (ARCH, volume 128)


We all know that Kant held ethics and empirical science to be separate, incommensurable disciplines. He also claimed that his views about ethical and empirical knowledge fit together in a single “Critical” system. In the essay that follows I want to sketch a modern, “semantic,” interpretation of Kant’s philosophy which explains both the unity of the critical system and the unbridgeable gap between ethical and empirical knowledge. I believe that this interpretation can help resolve some exegetical problems that appear to plague Kant’s theories about ethics and empirical science. And I believe that it can also focus attention in a new way on some aspects of Kant’s moral theory that seem most troubling today.


Pure Reason Exploratory Imagination Epistemic Situation Transcendental Idealism Empirical Object 
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  1. 1.
    Kant says: “In its empirical character, therefore, this subject, as appearance, would have to conform to all the laws of causal determination. To this extent it could be nothing more than a part of the world of sense, and its effects, like all other appearances, must be the inevitable outcome of nature” (A540/B568).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Compare A55/B79.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Strawson’s The Bounds of Sense (Methuen, 1966) vigorously defends the interpretation of transcendental idealism as phenomenalism. Regarding the self as an ethical agent Kant himself says: “In its intelligible character… this same subject must be considered to be free from all influence of sensibility and from all determination through appearances.… And consequently, since natural necessity is to be met with only in the sensible world, this active being must in its actions be independent of, and free from all such necessity” (A541/B569). There have been many objections to this doctrine of the self-in-itself from Pistorious (in Allgemeine deutsche Bibliothek 66) in Kant’s own time to Ross (Kant’s Ethical Theory,Oxford, 1954) and Bennett (“Kant’s Theory of Freedom,” in Self and Nature in Kant’s Philosophy,ed. A. Wood, Cornell, 1984) in our century.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Indeed, the discussion (from various perspectives) of the role of imagination in Kant’s ethics often simply endorses Kant’s dismissal. See, for instance, G. Deleuze, La philosophie critique de Kant (Presses Universitaires de France, 1963, chs. 1 and 2). Hannah Arendt in her Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy (Chicago, 1982) as well as Paul Guyer in Kant and the Claims of Taste (Harvard, 1979), Mary Warnock in Imagination (University of California Press, 1976) and Donald Crawford in “Kant’s Theory of Creative Imagination” (Chapter 5 of Ted Cohen and Paul Guyer [eds.], Essays in Kant’s Aesthetics,Chicago, 1982) all discuss the analogies and disanalogies governing the roles assigned to imagination by the first and third Critiques,but they do not compare these with Kant’s treatment of imagination in the second Critique. Finally, L. W. Beck, in his Commentary on the Critique of Practical Reason (Chicago, 1960, p. 67), does suggest that there is an element in Kant’s ethics that is parallel to the role of pure imagination in the Critique of Pure Reason; but Beck does not develop this point nor take up the question of why Kant refused the title of imagination to this parallel faculty.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Perception always comes in service of a judgment, which in turn provides the governing concept for the synthesis.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    See KU 5: 316, where Kant speaks of the aesthetic imagination as producing a “multiplicity of partial representations.” Interestingly, in the aesthetic case Kant drops the assumption that all the elements of this multiplicity already fall under a recognized concept.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Thus something like Figure 1 can also be used to depict the exploratory imagination. We would, however, no longer assume that the nodes in the first level projections represent extensions of the conscious state which is at the origin. And we do not even assume that the node at the base of the diagram represents an actual perception.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Kant is what I call (in “Brouwer’s Constructivism” Synthese 27, 1974) a “constructivist of the left.”Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    A non-finite being, who could survey all that is actual and possible, would have no need for the Kantian imagination.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    In Anth. 7: 251 Kant tells us that “Appetite is the self-determination of a subject’s power through the idea of some future thing as an effect of this power.”Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    This is a constant theme in Kant. Insofar as he considers non-human rational beings, he characterizes them solely according to differences in their faculties of intuition. See for instance B148–49.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    As I interpret this soliloquy, Shakespeare here has transformed into a moral deliberation the following political and psychological observation that he found in Raphael Holingshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland: “These and the like commendable lawes Makbeth caused to be put as then in vse, gouerning the realme for the space of ten yeares in equall iustice. But this was but a counterfet zeale of equitie shewed by him, partlie against his naturall inclination to purchase thereby the fauour of the people. Shortlie after, he began to shew what he was, in stead of equitie practicing crueltie. For the pricke of conscience (as it chanceth euer in tyrants, and such as atteine to anie estate by vnrighteous means) caused him euer to feare, lest he shoud be serued of the same cup, as he had ministred to his predecessor” (Second Edition, 1587, page 172).Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    R.M. Hare’s Freedom and Reason (Oxford, 1963, esp. pp. 94ff.) shows that even today imagination is recognized as a necessary constituent of universalization.Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    This interpretation is not so anachronistic as it might at first seem. Its basic assumption is that transcendental philosophy is concerned with the nature of empirical judgments, rather than with the nature of empirical objects. That is not so radical a claim. Moreover, we need not construe these judgments as “linguistic” entities. Thought entities will do just as well, so long as we require (as Kant clearly did) that these judgments have grammatical form.Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    The model theoretic reading also causes difficulties in interpreting transcendental realism. The realist, while admitting that imagination is a constituent in determining the objectivity of our empirical judgments, will deny that it has any role in the construction of empirical objects, and thus in the truth of those judgments. This is pictured in Figure 2. The right side of the diagram represents mind independent truth, and is the only side that has semantic weight. But this is precisely the understanding of transcendental realism that led to the accusation of circularity in the realist’s “Antinomy” arguments.Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    See Dummett’s contributions to A. Margalit (ed.), Meaning and Use — Papers Presented at the Second Jerusalem Philosophical Encounter, April 1976 (Reidel, 1979), pp. 123–135; 218–225.Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    Crispin Wright has recently discussed a similar notion under the title of“superassertability.” See Realism, Meaning and Truth (Blackwell, 1987).Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    I have explored this in more detail in “Kant’s Mathematical Realism,” The Monist 67 (1984): 115–134.Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    See my “Where Have All the Objects Gone?” Southern Journal of Philosophy 5, Supplement (1986). William James is struggling to make a similar point in several of his writings. Thus, for instance, in the Preface to The Meaning of Truth (Longmans, Green and Co., 1909) he says: “Most of the pragmatist and anti-pragmatist warfare is over what the word ”truth“ shall be held to signify, and not over any of the facts embodied in truth-situations; for both pragmatists and anti-pragmatists believe in existent objects, just as they believe in our ideas of them. The difference is that when the pragmatists speak of truth, they mean exclusively something about the ideas, namely their workableness; whereas when anti-pragmatists speak of truth they seem most often to mean something about the objects.”Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    Objective validity is defined in terms of concepts because it is a formal condition, one which characterizes an entire class of judgments. Truth, by contrast, is a material condition which applies to individual judgments one at a time.Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    In transcendental philosophy this distinguishes the thought experiments which accompany concepts having objective validity (the schematized categories, for instance) from those thought experiments which must be employed when we consider the unschematized categories. (See my “Where Have All the Objects Gone?” for more details.)Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    So no matter how great an artist and even enchantress imagination may be, it is still not creative, but must get the material for its images from the senses“ (Anth. 7: 168).Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    See my “Transcendental Idealism and Causality,” in W. Harper and R. Meerbote (eds.), Kant on Causality, Objectivity and Freedom (University of Minnesota Press, 1984).Google Scholar
  24. 24.
    Thus taking natural law as a “type” (KpV 5: 70) simply amounts to considering natural laws under a special set of assumptions.Google Scholar
  25. 25.
    See, for instance, Ways of Worldmaking (Hackett, 1978).Google Scholar
  26. 26.
    Kant says: “A conflict of duties… would be a relation of duties in which one of them would annul the other (wholly or in part). But a conflict of duties and obligations is inconceivable… For the concepts of duty and obligation as such express the objective practical necessity of certain actions, and two conflicting rules cannot both be necessary at the same time: if it is our duty to act according to one of these rules, then to act according to the opposite one is not our duty and is even contrary to duty” (MS 6: 223).Google Scholar
  27. 27.
    Sartre, L’Existentialisme est un Humanisme (Les Editions Nagle, 1946).Google Scholar
  28. 28.
    See, for instance, A55/B79 and TL 6: 380, 409.Google Scholar
  29. 29.
    Much as Gödel has posited such an intuition in mathematics.Google Scholar
  30. 30.
    I would like to thank the National Endowment for the Humanities for support allowing me to attend the Institute on Kantian Ethical Theories at Johns Hopkins University in the summer of 1983. I am grateful to the participants at that institute and especially to its Directors, Professor Jerome Schneewind and David Hoy, for guiding my first steps in studying Kant’s ethical writings. Research for this paper was begun in the summer of 1985, when I visited the Bergman Center for Philosophical Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. That visit was partially supported by an NEH summer stipend. I would also like to thank Professor Yirmiyahu Yovel for arranging that visit and for several stimulating discussions which influenced my thinking on the topics covered in this paper. This paper also benefited greatly from the comments made on an earlier version by the participants in the Carnegie Mellon University philosophy colloquium.Google Scholar

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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1989

Authors and Affiliations

  • Carl J. Posy
    • 1
  1. 1.Duke UniversityUSA

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